Who owns your comments?

May 31, 2010

These days, I’ve been thinking again about the problems related with mining social network info. I’m still astonished at Facebook decision of suing Peter Warden because he gathered a massive collection of Facebook data. He was liable just because he wanted to disclose the set to researchers worldwide. Today, I read (via tweet from Ed Chi) an article on NYTimes saying that a growing number of companies are making business with end-user data. At least, their plans are clear… more or less. But I still wonder whether FB and Twitter users were aware of this side-effect: that FB and Twitter can discover a lot of things mining their public accounts. And sell results to private companies interested in them. After all, the best market study is one covering feedback from several million customers, right?

This leads to a natural question: who owns the content posted on social networks sites? Can other companies mine that data? What if my profile is public? How about  someone collecting, say, one trillion of tweets from public streams?  Could Twitter sue that person, just like FB attorneys did to Peter Warden?

After an interesting discussion about this with my colleague Jim Whitehead (he’s spending his sabbatical with our group), I have just a reasonable answer for Twitter, but I do have a crystal clear response for FB.

  • Regarding Twitter, the answer is a bit odd (besides, I’m not quite sure it is applicable to all jurisdictions in the world): at least in USA, prevalent opinion from law experts is that tweets cannot be copyrighted, at least in USA.
  • As for FB, as I said, it’s pretty clear: each individual user (as of today’s FB terms of service) is the owner of their content in the system. However, you give FB (or any subcontractor) full permission to access and mine your data, for any purposes. And they reserve (as usual) the right of changing these terms of service at any time. Remember that  FB already tried to execute full control over our data posted on their system.

I didn’t do it on purpose, but after reading Pete’s story, I’m using FB less and less frequently. On the contrary, I write more frequently on Twitter. I’ve just opened a new account on Identi.ca (seriously considering to redirect my microblogging from there to Twitter).

Conclusion: should I ever look to another massive on-line community to be analyzed,  I’d still choose Twitter. No doubt.

Before I finish, a couple of related thoughts:

  • It’s funny that nobody bothered before about this, despite we exchanged zillions of short messages over SMS for more than a decade. Mental note: all this started when short messages went public (and we called it microblogging).
  • If you think that social concern about privacy rights and data protection is something new, you should definitely read this post on The Next Bison about that.

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